Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hitchcock likes free agent additions

Blues coach feels Stastny should get hype but not to underscore additions 
of Lehtera, Lindstrom; feels trade for Gunnarsson gives team puck-mover

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock won't hide the fact they fortified their center position with the addition of Paul Stastny.

But make no mistake about it: Hitchcock is not adding secondary meaning to a different pair of free agent signings: Jori Lehtera and Joakim Lindstrom.

The 28-year-old Stastny, who inked a four-year, $28 million contract July 1 to come back to the city where many of his childhood years were spent, adds the spice to the Blues' shopping season during free agency. But the 62-year-old Hitchcock feels the 30-year-old Lindstrom, signed to a one-year, $700,000 contract in June and the 26-year-old Lehtera, who signed for two years and $5.5 million July 1, greatly enhances the team's forward mix.
(Getty Images)
The Blues were finally able to land center Jori Lehtera (left), signing the
Finland native to a two-year contract.

"The three guys we got ... 'Stas' is obviously a big boost for the organization, a big boost for our team," Hitchcock said Monday at the Blues' prospects camp. "Players like him, players know him. He's got tremendous friends and teammates on the team from USA competitions, but adding Lehtera and Lindstrom are going to help us, too, because these are two guys who could potentially play in our top nine. When you add three players who potentially could play in your top nine, it puts significant depth into your roster. 

"Those three guys could make a big difference for us because it's going to allow us to play players in the right spots. It's going to give us more scoring probably than we've ever had, at least since I've been here, so hopefully it's going to balance things out a little bit better for us in the West here."

Lehtera, drafted by the Blues in the third round in 2008 (65th overall), was the wildcard signing that nobody saw coming. When Blues general manager Doug Armstrong attempted to get Lehtera to the NHL last season and was turned down for a three-year contract to play with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, it was viewed as a possible last grasp at attempting to bring the Finnish-born center into the fold.

But after a conversation with Armstrong at the Winter Olympics, in which Lehtera admitted to the Blues GM that he made a mistake in not coming to the NHL last year, Armstrong re-opened a rapidly closing door and ignited the switch again. And Hitchcock is thrilled after Lehtera reportedly paid in excess of $1 million of his own money to get out of his KHL deal.

Lehtera, part of Finland's bronze medal-winning squad at the Sochi Olympics and silver medalist at the World Championships in Minsk, Belarus, had a goal and four points in six Olympic games and added another three goals and 12 points in 10 games at the World Championship after a 12-goal, 44-point season in 48 games with Sibir Novosibirsk.

"Jori started out as the fourth-line left winger on a pretty good Finnish team and ended up as the second center," Hitchcock said. "He turned around four months later and was the No. 1 center on the World team in the World Championships. He's a guy to me they trust, he can play up and down the lineup, he played some left wing, he played a lot of center. He killed penalties, quarterbacked the power play in the World Championships, ended up on the power play at the end of the Olympics. So to me, when coaches play him like that, they trust him. 

"I talked to two of the coaches during the Olympics, what he was like and things like that. They really liked him. They thought he had ... the word that kept coming up was hockey savvy. They really felt like he's got hockey savvy. They took him ahead of some of the people that were in the NHL. It's a pretty big feather in a guy's cap when you get to be like that."

Lindstrom last played in the NHL with Stastny and the Colorado Avalanche in 2011-12, when he scored two goals and had five points in 16 games.

Over the past four seasons, Lindstrom has shined with Skelleftea of the Swedish Hockey League, where he scored 76 goals and added 121 assists, including 23 goals and 63 points in 55 games a season ago. He also had five goals and 11 points in nine games for Sweden at the World Championship.

Lindstrom, who is close friends with Blues left wing Alexander Steen, was originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round (41st pick) in 2002. His best season was 2008-09 when he had nine goals and 20 points in 44 games with the now-Arizona Coyotes.

Hitchcock also addressed the acquisition of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a draft day trade along with the Leafs' fourth-round pick for defenseman Roman Polak.

It diminishes the Blues physically on the backend but gives them more mobility and puck-moving ability with Gunnarsson, 27, who can play with either Kevin Shattenkirk or Alex Pietrangelo ... something Hitchcock did not rule out. It will also give Ian Cole a legitimate shot at cracking the top six.

"We're less physical but better transitionally," Hitchcock said. "We're going to be better on our exits, we're going to be better on our puck movement, we're going to be able to make more direct plays. 

"We're going to lose some physicality without 'Romy' there, but we think we can make it up by adding a guy like Ian Cole, who's got size and mobility. We just feel like we've got to create a spot for Cole. I think he can play the right side. He looked better on the right than he did on the left. We think it's his time. He's mentally ready. He's really grown up in the last 12 months. We just felt like we've got to create room and make that opportunity and we also need a better transition player, puck moving-wise for either 'Shatty' or 'Petro.'"

With a plethora of options at forward, Hitchcock will have lots of options with line combinations, but Lehtera and Lindstrom seem to be the wildcards that could set all the wheels in motion. 

"I just feel like with seven exhibition games, we've got lots of time to look at players," Hitchcock said. "I really would like to see some different combinations at training camp and see how they look. 
(Getty Images)
The last time Joakim Lindstrom donned an NHL jersey
was in 2012 with the Colorado Avalanche.

"I think it really depends on how far Lindstrom and Lehtera work their way up the lineup. I want to give them every chance to play as many exhibition games as they can so that they get used to the competition and so that it also gives us a chance to see where they fit and how much they can help us (and) how far up the lineup. Both guys are really good pros. They're not 22-year-olds. One guy's (26), the other guy's 30 years of age. They know how to play. So I just want to find out how they look. I think the two combinations -- if training camp started tomorrow -- that we'd look at is (Vladimir) Tarasenko with Lehtera because it's worked before and then we'd also want to see Steen with Lindstrom because those guys know how to play and they've played a lot together."

As far as Stastny, Hitchcock needs forwards that will go hard at the net.

"He's a great positionally defensive player from that standpoint," Hitchcock said. "He gets a lot of his offense from certain players on the ice, so we need people to complement that. When he's on the ice, we need people that really attack the net on his line. So whoever he plays with defensively isn't going to matter because he's positionally sound. He's going to be able to do all the low work. He can carry his own weight there, but offensively, we need a player or two that really go to the net because he puts the puck into those short scoring areas, those bang-bang areas better than anybody that we've had here. We're going to have to find guys that know how to do that."

Lots for the coach to decipher and yet there's still more than two months before camp opens.

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